Thirteen passengers and 29 crew members have fallen ill with influenza-like symptoms on board a Holland America Line cruise ship currently off the coast of Chile. And Canadians on the ship — which has been searching for a place to dock since March 14 — are desperate to get home.
The ship is carrying 1,829 people: 586 crew and 1,243 passengers, 247 of which are Canadian.
Michael Kasprow, of Toronto, said his 82-year-old mother, Julie, is on the ship with a friend, also in her 80s. Neither are currently sick, he said, but he’s worried that the illness some of the passengers are experiencing could be COVID-19.
“We’ve seen what it can do on a cruise ship, and I just feel like they’re sitting ducks,” Kasprow said.
Holland America has no kits on board to test for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The company says all ill individuals have been quarantined since Sunday and that the remaining passengers and non-essential crew have been asked to remain in their cabins as a precautionary measure.
“The safety and well-being of our guests and crew is one of our highest priorities,” the company said in a written statement.
The ship, the Zaandam, departed for its South American cruise on March 7, just two days before the Canadian government issued an advisory to avoid all ship cruise ship travel — after two Princess cruise ships were hit with COVID-19 outbreaks.
On March 13, Holland America announced it was suspending all operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, the closest country, Chile wouldn’t allow the Zaandam to dock, as a precautionary measure during the pandemic.
Where will the ship dock now?
The ship was heading north, with plans to dock in Florida on March 30, when the company announced that some people on board had fallen ill.
“We’re no longer a healthy ship,” said passenger Chris Joiner, from the Ottawa suburb of Orleans. “We are now concerned that no port will allow us to get off.”
Joiner is travelling with his wife, Anna. Neither is sick and they remain confined for now to their 180-square-foot cabin.
On Sunday, Joiner contacted Global Affairs Canada and the Canadian embassy in Chile to ask for help. The embassy replied by email that it was monitoring the situation.
Joiner, 59, wants action now. “Get us the hell off this ship,” he said.
Just before it announced some passengers were sick, the Zaandam had stopped in Valparaiso, Chile on March 20, where the country let it refuel and pick up supplies.
Holland America said the ship is currently en route to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. However, it has yet to secure permission to pass through the Panama Canal. On March 16, Panama closed its borders to foreigners due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Holland America said “alternative options are also being developed” if it can’t pass through the canal.
Should it have ended earlier?
Norma Kirkham, of Victoria, is also on the ship with her husband, David. She said both of them are feeling well and that the Zaandam is taking good care of its passengers.
But she too worries about finding a place to dock and then securing a flight back to Canada at a time when airlines are vastly cutting their services and many countries are closing their borders.
“How will we get home from a port with flights diminishing by the day?” asked the 63-year-old. “Where will we stay? Will [Holland America] still be looking after us?”
Kasprow said he’s angry with Holland America for not halting the cruise earlier, when it was clear that COVID-19 could easily spread on cruise ships.
So far, at least three cruise ships have been hit with outbreaks of the virus. The most recent case involved a Fred Olsen Cruise Lines ship, where the outbreak was confirmed on March 9.
“Somebody didn’t make the decision soon enough to end the cruise and get those people off,” said Kasprow. “They continued the cruise and made it all the way down to the tip of South America before they made any decisions to cease operations.”
Holland America didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, passengers on board the Zaandam remain in their rooms, waiting desperately for better news.
“We are literally taking it one day at a time,” said Kirkham.
A second Holland America cruise ship, the Maasdam is also still at sea. The company said it was set to dock in Honolulu on March 20 until Hawaii changed its mind and refused to accept the ship.
The Maasdam is now headed to San Diego, with a planned arrival on March 27. There is no word at this point of any sick passengers or crew on board.